Sapper Michael Tobin enlisted in October 1915. His files indicate that he would be 'Fit for service if filled with teeth'.

above: Tobin is the only New Zealand burial at Beauval Communal Cemetery, Somme, France, his remains were moved there from Lucheux Military Cemetery.

Photo: Robert E. Pike

Tobin died close to Easter 1916. A year later, in Easter 1917, the New Zealand Tunnelling Company would see the results of their underground labours used for the launch of the Battle of Arras.

As well as being the first NZEF member to die, Sapper Michael Tobin may have also been underage when he enlisted.

4/1639 Sapper Michael Tobin, NZETC
First NZEF death on Western Front

4/1639 Sapper Michael Tobin of the New Zealand Engineers Tunnelling Company was a miner, working for the Public Works Department in Tauranga. In October 1915, Tobin responded to the call for men with mining experience to enlist in a specialist mining corps.

The 14 October Bay of Plenty Times carried the following report, ‘Enrolments still continue satisfactorily in Tauranga. Messrs William Simpson, Geo Tobin, Vincent Macken and W J Austin enrolled on Saturday. Other recent enrolments are H Harrison, Gordon Fairclough, Michael Tobin, J G Foulis, D Collins, Edward Metherell and John Weaver. Some of these men have already left, and the remainder will leave with a large batch of men on Monday morning for Waihi’.

On 5 October Tobin attested in Avondale. From Tauranga, also enlisting in the Tunnelling Company were 4/1561 Second Corporal (later Sergeant) Walter James Austin, 4/1612 Sapper Gordon Fairclough, 4/1617 Sapper Herbert Harrison, 4/1640 Sapper Thomas Charles Tomsett and 4/1224 Lieut.(later Lieutenant Colonel) John Dudley Holmes.

Sapper Tobin was 5 feet 9 inches tall, weighed 11 stone 8 pounds, was of fair complexion, had fair hair and blue eyes. He was a Roman Catholic. Like many other tunnellers who enlisted, his teeth were in poor condition. His files indicate he had a shortage of teeth and would be ‘Fit for service if filled with teeth’.

It appears he failed to put in the year of his birth when he attested. Tobin’s main military file records he was born 8 Feb 1898. The year ’98’ has been pencilled in on his attestation papers at an apparent later date. Although his attestation records state ‘Apparent age 30 years’, the date on his file would make him 17 years old. Family have indicated he was born 28 July 1880 (see below) which would make him 35 on enlistment.

The 19 November 1915 Bay of Plenty Times wrote; ‘At the Tauranga Hotel last night a number of friends entertained Sapper H. Harrison, of the Tunnelling Corps, who is now visiting friends here on final leave. Mr Kimber, on behalf of his employees, presented Mr Harrison with a case of pipes, a safety razor, and a tobacco pouch. Sapper Harrison, accompanied by Sapper G Fairclough and M Tobin, will leave for the Avondale camp by steamer to-night’.

In April, a month after the tunnellers landed in France, the Tunnelling Company was in Arras. Entries in the Tunnelling Company Unit Diary record arrangements being made for electric lighting of galleries. On 7 April it was reported that the enemy blew a camouflet and that although it was unsuccessful in doing damage, it filled part of the workings with gas. It was reported that ‘the ground at surface in the old crater was slightly disturbed’.

On the 10 April a section was opened up and it was found that the German camouflet caused more damage than initially believed. The central gallery suffered some damage, however the right and left branches were not affected.

Mining continued with mining at all faces despite ‘a number of men off on account of bad colds and a few with measles'.

On the 14 April 1916, Tobin was admitted to hospital. A day later on the 15 April he died of Bronchial Pneumonia.

The Tunnelling Company Unit Diary reports that on 20 April 1916 mining was in full swing North of Scarpe and in two galleries in hand near Agny. It also records; ‘Received word to-day of first death among members of Coy. No 4/1639 Sapper M. Tobin, who died in Hospital on 15th inst. of Broncho-Pneumonia and was buried at Lucheux Military Cemetery’.

4/1639 Sapper Michael Tobin from Tauranga, Public Works Department miner, was the first NZEF death on the Western Front.

His death occurred close to Easter. The day after his death was recorded in the Unit Diary, the record would report. 'Good Friday. German miners becoming more active N. of Scarpe'.

A year later, Easter 1917, the NZ Tunnelling Company would see the results of their underground labours used for the launch of the Battle of Arras. The following year, in 1918, Lieutenant J. D. Holmes who left with Tobin and who also worked for the Tauranga Public Works, was in charge of another well-known feat of the NZETC, the construction of a bridge over Havrincourt under difficult circumstances. Lieutenant Colonel Holmes would receive a DSO for this duty.

After the Armistice, graves from Lucheux Military Cemetery were moved to Rows A and G of the Beauval Communal Cemetery.

Tobin is the only NZ burial at Beauval Communal Cemetery, Somme, France. Grave Ref; A.26

Sapper Tobin’s military files record next of kin as his brother, W Tobin, who also worked for the Public Works Department, Tauranga.

The Bay of Plenty Times April 27 1916 reports; ‘Mr W Tobin, of the Public Works Department at the Mount, received a telegram this morning from the Hon. J Allen, Minister of Defence, that his brother Mr Michael Tobin, formerly employed by the Public Works Department at the Mount, died on April 15th from bronchial pneumonia. No intimation is given as to where Mr Tobin was, although his relatives understand that he was still in England after having been invalided there’.

The death of Michael Tobin wasn’t the only sad information family would receive.

Shortly after receiving news of Michael’s death the Bay of Plenty newspaper reported, ‘Mr W Tobin of Mount Maunganui received a telegram to-day from Mr Lindup of the Public Works Department at Oakleigh, north of Auckland, that his brother James was drowned on Saturday night, and was to be buried at Mangapai to-day. Only last week Mr Tobin received word of the death of another brother at the front. Mr Tobin will have extended to him the sincere sympathy of a large number of friends in his double bereavement’.

The Evening Post newspaper adds some further information to the sad death of a second brother; ’A single man, named James Tobin, employed on the railway construction at Oakleigh, jumped overboard from a launch at 1 o’clock on Sunday morning, and was dead before a rescue could be effected. No reason has been assigned for the act’.

Within a few days of hearing of his brother’s death in France, it appears James Tobin took his own life.

In 1919, Michael Tobin’s estate was split between his brother William and two sisters, Mary Whittle and Bridget McCloughen. Both sisters lived in Auckland.

In 1920, Michael’s medals went to his brother William Tobin in Paengaroa, Bay of Plenty.

Read descendant Jeff Tobin's letter following his visit to the grave of his Great Uncle on the Western Front in April 2012.

Special thanks for help with research for this article
Margaret Marks, Senior Adviser, National Monuments and War Graves - Heritage Operations, Ministry for Culture and Heritage
Dr. Ian McGibbon, General Editor War History, Ministry for Culture and Heritage

Robert E. Pike, World War One researcher, and author of 'The Victor Heroes'
Lee Switzer, Tauranga City Library

Sapper Michael Tobin 1880 - 1916
by Tobin family member Anne McLellan
In 1864 Michael Tobin, formerly of Scariff, Co. Clare, Ireland, and his sisters Bridget and Margaret were living in Cape Town, South Africa. This emigration had not proved to be all that successful and when the opportunity for emigration to NZ under the Waikato Immigration Scheme became available, they quickly took advantage of the opportunity, leaving Capetown on the “Eveline” in 1864 and arriving in Auckland NZ on 11 January 1865. By 1868 Michael owned property in Pukekohe and Awhiti. By 1884 he had settled on his Pukekohe section and was dairy farming.

In 1871 Michael married Mary Galvin at the Catholic Church of the Assumption in Onehunga.
They had 8 chidren,4 boys and 4 girls, all but one surviving infancy. Little is currently known about the family's life in Pukekohe except that they were strong in their Catholic faith, and music and dance were a big part of their lives.

In 1885 the family had left some firewood by the fire to dry and gone to bed. Mary woke during the night to smell smoke. She woke her brother who was sleeping in the kitchen and they managed to evacuate all the children. The house was completely destroyed..

Michael died 12 October 1887 from heart disease accompanied by rheumatism. That the deceased was held in the highest esteem by all his neighbours and acquaintances was fully shown by the large number who attended his funeral. He is buried with his brother Patrick in the Pukekohe Catholic Cemetery.

Today, the descendents of Michael and Mary are scattered across the north island and for some, music and dance are still playing a part in their lives. Many are also successful in sports.

The youngest son of Michael and Mary was Michael, born 28 July 1880. He was baptised at the Catholic Church of the Assumption, Onehunga. As a boy he was expected to do his share of duties on the family farm. The 1888 Prize List of the Marist School lists a Michael Tobin receiving the Third Year Prize for Catechism.

Waikato Immigrant Scheme. Nat, Archives App 852.
Sacramental Registers Catholic Church of the Assumption, Onehunga: Marriages 1871
1868 Auckland Provincial Highways Assessments
1884 Freeholders Lists
Auckland Star, Volume XXVI, Issue 5459, 17 January 1885, Page 2. htttp://
NZ Deaths 1887/1631
Auckland Star, Volume XVIII, Issue 261, 5 November 1887, Page 6. tp://
Burial Records Pukekohe Catholic Church Cemetery Record 153
NZ Births. 1880/2310. Drury
Sacramental Registers Catholic Church of the Assumption, Onehunga: Births 1880
Anne McLellan

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